My parents gave me a surprise 30th birthday party, which I couldn’t enjoy because of its bad, bad timing, catching me off guard in a rotten mood and with three-day dirty hair, when I was vulnerable and least in need of surprises. There was a moment of darkness and then a flash of light and shrill sound. I fixed on the only unfamiliar face in the crowd—that of a blond young man, dressed in a red suit and hat that made him look like an organ grinder’s monkey. He tap danced on a square of checkered tile and read me a birthday poem. I watched and listened, stunned— circles of light from the flash bulbs still blazing in front of me. The blond boy’s face was the only resting place for my eyes. The other party faces beamed, with their fishbowl features and their familiar smiles, and while the tap dancer finished his poem, I composed myself and prepared to greet them.
Thirty was the age I had sworn as a child I would never be, an age that had crept up behind me and startled me with its tap on my shoulder. I felt old and unaccomplished—not inclined to celebrate. In the past year I had watched web-footed wrinkles sprout from the corners of my eyes, and seen another fold form in my stomach. On the morning of the party, I had found a second white hair, a neon string in my black head, come to dash my hopes that the first one had been just a fluke.
The blond boy disappeared, with his peach fuzz and a tip from my father and his square of checkered tile. The party picked up steam. There were streamers and dips and spiked punch, and sagging chins held up by the fragile straps of party hats. I was subdued, like a bride at her wedding, I thought, but then how would I know? I watched my friends at the party, most of them coupled and well-dressed and self-assured. I wondered how many of them felt their lives to be full, and how many of them were just pretending. Trying to act with the grace of 30, I spoke to every guest and changed colors as I mingled—discussing Chopin and the weather with my old piano teacher and the rising cost of marijuana with a young cousin. Turning 30 had not changed the chameleon side of me. My mother’s friend Martha was waiting for me in a corner. “Time to start thinking of marriage and children,” she advised, patting my arm. “You’re no spring chicken, Rose.”
After the party, my boyfriend Joseph drove me home and asked me, because he knew I like him to ask, if he could spend the night. He had been part of the surprise, a late knock on the door and a sudden hush—home early from a long business trip abroad. He was a financial consultant— sold ideas I rarely understood to rich people who had none of their own. I was upset that we had had to meet after so long in a crowd. I had wanted warning sent ahead on a postcard and time to plan for our reunion, time to think how I would tell Joseph what I had to tell him. I wanted to be alone that night after my party, to have my thoughts and a bath and the bed to myself, as I had become accustomed, but I couldn’t refuse the plea in Joseph’s eyes. There was no reason for him to believe that I might not want him there—in my apartment, in my bed. And though I told him that I’d missed him and of course he could stay the night, I didn’t know how I felt about Joseph any more.
It was near two in the morning when we climbed the stairs to my apartment. I turned on the light in the kitchen and saw the slowest of my band of cockroaches scuttle under the sink. Joseph took a beer from the refrigerator and sat down on one of my yard-sale chairs, cracked red vinyl showing grey stuffing underneath. I straddled his knees and took a swig of his beer.
“Let’s go to bed,” he said, and pushed me towards the bedroom door with the beer can pressed to the small of my back. He sat in a chair and watched me undress, and then I lay naked on the bed and watched him. Joseph looked thin and handsome, the touch and taste of Europe still on him. As we made love, I pretended that he was a stranger. He made love to me as he always had—slowly, silently, and with curiosity. I knew he had been faithful—no new whims or caresses or tricks or new smells on him—no restlessness. Joseph found comfort in familiarity, in my full breasts and the curves of my body, my thick hair. Whenever I asked him how he would change me if he could, Joseph always said that he liked me the way I was.
We lay on our backs, naked and damp, side by side.
“I missed you,” he said, rubbing my thigh.
“We can’t make love again,” I told him.
“Why not? I wanted to screw six times tonight.”
“No more cream,” I lied. I didn’t tell him that I had made a charade of putting in my diaphragm, that I had closed the bathroom door and read Time magazine on top of the toilet seat instead.
“I’ll be careful,” he said, rolling onto me.
“No.” I pushed him away and turned on my side.
“What’s going on, Rose? You’re avoiding me.”
“I turned 30 tonight,” I said, hedging.
“Most people do.”
“I don’t feel very good about it. Was that how you felt?”
“No, I felt relieved. Nobody tried to change me any more.”
“Didn’t you feel like time had run out, that you hadn’t done enough of the things you were supposed to have done in three decades?”
“No, not at all, I finally felt legitimate.”
“I don’t have enough reasons to feel legitimate,” I said.
“You have me,” he said playfully, running a finger in between my breasts.
“That’s not enough. I still feel crummy. Besides, you’re not mine. I don’t own you. You could leave me at any time. Or I might leave you.”
“Oh Christ.” Joseph rolled over and out of bed. “If you’re going to talk riddles all night, I’m going home, Rose.”
“Don’t go.” I reached out my arm. “I have to tell you something, Joseph.”
“But I’ve been gone for four months,” he said, and looked at my stomach. “It. . . .”
“It’s not yours, Joseph.”
He laughed like a crazy man.
“Don’t laugh, Joseph. Please.”
“Well, well. Welcome home, Joseph Mallory,” he said, throwing his pants down on the floor. He punched the wall, then brought his thin wrists together in fists of pain, standing naked and furious in the middle of the room.
“Jesus Christ, Rose! Jesus Christ!”
“I’m sorry, Joseph.”
“You’ve been away so long. . . .”
“It was business, Rose. I had to go.”
“I know. But it was a bad time for me to be alone. I needed somebody, something.”
“And so you found yourself a friend, someone to keep you warm at night.”
“Are you just going to be sarcastic,” I asked through tears. “Maybe you think that’s your right, Joseph, but I can’t stand it.”
He slumped down on the bed beside me, avoiding my eyes. “When did it happen, Rose? Why?”
“A month or so ago.” I spoke to his shoulder. “You were so far away, with a mission and without me. I was lonely, I told you, feeling old. My mother was pestering me about my future. I didn’t know if you and I had one. Then I found a white hair.”
“You found a white hair?”
“It scared me, Joseph. I started to think about growing old alone, about missing out on having children. You were away so much. We had never talked seriously about marriage or kids—about commitment. I was mad at you for never having tried, mad at myself for being so passive. I did something stupid.”
He looked up and said nothing.
“Do you want me, Joseph? Do you want a family?”
“How about now?” I said, feeling the weakness of my plea.
“Oh come on, Rose. That’s not fair.” He reached for his pants. “It’s not even my goddamned kid.”
On his way out the door, he turned to face me.
“Who was it Rose?”
“It was nobody, really. A man from Minnesota named William. I met him at an opening at the Gallery. He was the artist’s brother. He had silver hair and a crooked smile. He seemed so wise. So capable.”
“And did he offer to take good care of you?” Joseph struggled with the twisted buckle of his belt. “Forever and forever like I never did?”
“He didn’t offer me anything. He told me he was married and left town. I don’t even want to find him.”
“What are you going to do Rose?”
“I don’t know.”
“I shouldn’t have left you,” he said as he turned away again. “You always change when I’m away.”
Joseph disappeared. I got a postcard a week later from Atlantic City, the colors all blaring and wrong, of a high-rise hotel on the beach, the kind you pick up free at the check-in counter. He didn’t say that he missed me or that he wished I were there. The handwriting was different, too—neater, more controlled. “I haven’t deserted you,” he wrote. “I just need time to think.”
So did I. I quit my job at the art supply store and locked myself into my apartment. But my thoughts got twisted during the long days alone. All of my emotions were bad, parasitic companions—indecision and panic and guilt, mixed delight and horror at my condition. My head began to throb, a worse pain than the nausea in my stomach each morning. I took hot shallow baths and fell asleep, mildly disappointed when I woke up, chilled and wrinkled, still pregnant and undecided.
After five days, my own confused company became intolerable. My cramped apartment became a prison. The garbage and the roaches and the wrinkles in my clothes—the TV and the noises of my neighbors and the third and fourth white hairs that I found—all the little details of my life conspired to drive me mad. My phone sat sullen and silent, buried beneath piles of unwashed clothes. When it finally rang on the fifth day, I jumped to find it.
It was Grace Stone, my boss at the art store, sort of a friend.
“How ya doing, kid?” she asked. “And how’s the kid doing?” Grace had a knack for taming disaster into mild and mendable calamity.
“I want my job back, Grace,” I said, breathless. “What do you say?”
“Figured,” she said. “I didn’t even try to find anyone else.”
I poured myself a glass of wine one cool fall evening and dialed my parents’ number. I knew that my mother would answer on the third ring; my father never answered the phone at all. It was my mother who I had to tell first, my mother who would need the most time. Over the years we had come to agree on so few things, that as adults we were left with little in common—bonded only by our shared and shredded past. In person we were careful not to clash, tired and wary from a long battle of wills. But on the phone we dared to be bold and casual—sometimes even intimate.
“Hi, Ma,” I said.
“Hello, dear. Before I forget, Rose. I bumped into Mrs. Johnson today, and. . . .”
“I’m pregnant, Ma,” I said, in the blunt manner that was not really mine, but that I had adopted years before to seal an image of tough.
“How did that happen?”
“It’s a great story, Ma. All about the birds and the bees and the flowers and the trees.”
“Don’t be flip, Rose.”
“Well, what else can I tell you?”
“Should I offer my congratulations or my condolences?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I know what young girls do with unborn babies these days. Vacuum them out and flush them down the toilet. What are you going to do, Rose? Are you and Joseph going to get married, or is that too old-fashioned?”
“It’s not Joseph’s baby,” I told her. She gasped.
“Well . . . my god, Rose . . . whose is it?”
“Some guy I met while Joseph was away.”
“Some guy you met, Rose?” Her voice rose frantically. “Some guy you met?”
“I don’t need this, Ma,” I told her, and hung up the phone.
Weeks passed, and I did nothing. I told myself that if I wanted to get rid of the baby, I would. I had always been an advocate of abortion. In more active days, I had picketed and leafleted at pro-choice rallies, defending every woman’s right to choose. I felt the comfort of my hard-earned right, and yet the choice did not come easily, did not come at all. When I was far into my second month and had gotten no further than clipping an ad for an abortion clinic out of the newspaper, I reasoned that I must not want to end the pregnancy. I couldn’t openly admit that I wanted a child; I had no sound reasons, except a fear of never having one. But nor could I act to stop the life from growing inside me. And in such a passive, illogical way did I decide to become a mother.
I went eagerly to work each day, where customers and paints and papers kept me from the chaos of my own life. When the weekends came, I hibernated in my apartment, tempted to drink myself into a stupor but not wanting to pickle the embryo inside me. I ate instead, when my stomach wasn’t queasy, piles of pasta with pesto, avocados, and cheese. One Sunday I woke up feeling fat and fed up with my dilemma and my small world. I went to the YWCA pool in Central Square and swam a mile. I cleaned my apartment and balanced my checkbook and watered my plants. And then I called my mother.
“I’m going to keep the baby,” I told her.
“That’s good, Rose. That’s good.”
“Is there anything else you want to know, Ma? Anything else you want to say before you forever hold your peace?”
“What about the man, Rose?”
“He’s gone. He was older, married. I made a mistake, Ma.”
“And what about Joseph?”
“You can’t blame him for bolting, Ma. It’s not his kid.”
I didn’t see Joseph again until I was well into my fourth month. He came to the art store one day at noon, the way he used to—unannounced and with the conspiratorial smile of a kidnaper. We walked past our favorite restaurants and ate at a new Chinese place on Boylston Street.
“Where’ve you been?” I asked him after we had ordered. “Atlantic City all this time?”
“No. I’ve been home for a while. I’ve been waiting.”
“For what?” I couldn’t bear to think that we had wasted time with waiting games. “You said you needed time to think, Joseph. It was me who had to wait for you.”
He took my hand across the table. It was the first time he had touched me, the first time anyone had touched me with care since our last encounter in my bedroom. “I’ve been waiting for you to make up your mind about the baby, Rose. I thought I might be able to tell by looking at you.”
I was a big woman, and had not started to show.
“What can you tell by looking at me?”
“Not much. You look beautiful, but not different”
“Is that good, Joseph? What decision should I have made to keep you?”
“You first,” he said. “What have you decided?”
“Well, the kid’s still here,” I told him, patting my stomach. “We’re getting to be friends. He doesn’t make me sick anymore.”
I watched Joseph’s face fall, and though I knew I had lost him, I made the last-ditch futile pleas that losers make. “You’d like him, Joseph. He’s the innocent in all of this. The baby could make it right.”
“I can’t do it, Rose,” he said. “I just can’t do it.” He walked out of the restaurant, leaving me alone with a plate of steamed dumplings.
Towards the end of my fifth month, I started to balloon. The morning sickness was gone, and I swam daily at the YWCA, where I became something of a local celebrity—the reigning pregnant queen. The expressionless faces of women, so often lost in thought, and the lumpy bodies that I swam among each day, suddenly came to life. They were friendly and attentive—urging me first into the showers and under the hair dryers, noting the progress of my swelling body, offering advice and encouragement. One young girl, who slithered up and down the lanes like a dolphin, took a special interest in me. Her name was Sara, and I thought she had no other home than the pool.
“You got to watch out for the kickers and the flippers,” she warned me. “I’ve been swimming with the Gators since I was six. Swimmers take out all their hostilities in the water, you know.”
“Is that right?”
“Yeah, I’ve been kicked everywhere—in the eye, in the neck, in the crotch. You gotta watch out for your stomach.” In the pool, she would surface head first like a seal from time to time to watch over me.
“Hey, Rose!” she yelled to me one day. “You should name the kid Mark.”
“After Mark Spitz. Five gold medals.”
“Nah,” I told her. “There was this kid in the third grade— named Mark. He used to throw sand in my face. I could never do it.”
I came to think of Sara and the other kind strangers at the Y as my friends. They were an active, if brief, part of my present; they knew about the changes in me. I avoided my other friends, the ones who had come to my party and shared pieces of my past, but who knew so little of me now.
The baby was a thrasher. I christened him The Swimmer and put my hand to my stomach when he splashed in my womb. By my sixth month, I felt strong, and not so lonely. Grace promoted me to manager at the art store, and I moved into a bigger apartment down by the river, quiet, with sunlit windows and no roaches—just one small mouse. My new neighborhood was full of bicycles and children and old people rocking on porches and even a few trees.
One Saturday, I was painting my living room white from brown when my doorbell rang for the first time. There was nobody I wanted to see. I was happy in my new apartment, alone and growing fat and hard with The Swimmer inside me, puttering and planning our future. Like a child, I crept into the bathroom and locked the door, frozen and silent inside. Still holding the wet paintbrush in my hand, I waited for the intruder to go away.
The doorbell rang three more times, with such patient insistence that I knew at last it must be my mother. I opened the door and she stood before me as she had so often before, hunched and defensive, draped in the tweed overcoat she always wore. It was a warm May day, and there was sweat on her brow.
“Hello, Rose. I came to see. . . .”
“My new apartment,” I said, grazing her cheek with a dry kiss.
“Not just that,” she said. “I came to see how you were getting along.”
“No, Rose,” her voice was insistent. “I came to see you.”
“Well, come on in, Ma. I’ll give you the grand tour. It doesn’t take long.” She came in, steering clear of my stomach.
“Let’s save the tour,” she said, sitting on the couch. “I need to rest from all those stairs.” I sat down beside her.
“I thought we might just talk, Rose. How are you feeling?”
“I feel good, Ma. Why don’t you take off your coat?”
“No, no.” She pulled it tight around her. “I can only stay a minute.”
“Can I get you something? Coffee, tea, a soda?”
“No, nothing, thank you, nothing.”
“What was it you wanted to say?”
“Oh, nothing special. . . .”
“Something about the baby, Ma?”
She looked relieved. “Well, yes. We could talk about the baby. I want you to know that I’m glad . . .about the baby. I don’t blame you for what happened . . .anymore.”
“I’m glad,” I said, slapping the paintbrush idly on the brown wall behind us. “You were afraid, weren’t you, Ma?”
“What do you mean?”
“You thought I’d get an abortion, just to spite you.”
“Yes, I suppose I did.” She laughed uneasily. “My saying no was always the best reason for your saying yes.”
I touched the hem of my mother’s coat, feeling sad about all the time we had spent quarreling. “Have I been a real disappointment to you, Ma? Are you sorry you had me?”
“Don’t be silly, Rose. You’re my daughter.”
“You’re stuck with me, huh, Ma?”
“I’m not stuck with you, Rose. Remember, it was my choice to have you. We haven’t always seen eye to eye, but I’ve never felt stuck.”
That night I thought about William, the man whose hotel bed I had shared for three nights, the dark face I had never really studied in the light, the man who had so drastically changed my life with so little caring or intention. I couldn’t remember his smell or his touch, or much of what he had said. I found it hard to connect his dim, wine-clouded memory with the thumping baby inside of me. I told The Swimmer about how his father had been a passing shadow— my mistake—and how it didn’t matter, how it would make him strong and how I would love him more than enough for two. He reacted violently to my news, kicking and thrashing to keep me from sleep. I was sure he was a boy, and wondered why. Was it because he was such a fighter? I was unwilling to acknowledge my sexist inclination to equate strength and masculinity, and so I attributed my hunch to maternal instinct.
In my seventh month, heavy and slow, I still swam at the Y. My hour in the pool was the best of my daily routines; when I didn’t swim, my day was only half right. It felt good to lie on my back in the cool water, full breasts and belly jutting up like mountains from the sea. I kicked my legs and let my arms float over my head. Then, turning gently over to plunge my whale’s belly into the drink, I did the breast stroke, practicing my breathing as I surfaced—the long, even breaths I would use with the first contractions, and then the panting, curtain pushing breaths of final labor.
“I’m going to have natural childbirth,” I told my mother after my first Lamaze class.
“Oh, Rose. Why do you have to make things so difficult for yourself?”
“I want it this way, Ma. No drugs, no drowsiness. I want to be fully awake when I meet The Swimmer. I need a birthing coach. It means classes once a week for two months. Will you do it?”
“Oh, Rose. I’d only be in the way. Why don’t you get one of your girlfriends?”
“I don’t want one of my girlfriends. I want you, and if I can’t have you. . . .”
“I know, I know, you’ll do it yourself. You’re as stubborn as a weed after a wet spring, Rose Fuller. Let me think. I need time to think it over.”
The next day she called me and said, “All right, Rose. I’ll do it. Someone’s gotta look after you and that baby, and it might as well be me.”
During the pregnancy, I saw little of my father. He was a quiet man, who had always been able to love me in an easy way that made my mother jealous of us both. His heart had given him a bad scare two years before, bullying him into early retirement at the age of 57. He didn’t leave the house much; he sat in his arm chair and read mystery novels and magazines. I saw him occasionally, when he came to pick up my mother after our childbirth class. I kissed his wrinkled cheek and noticed how old he was beginning to look, more like a grandfather every time.
“Take care of yourself, Rosie,” he said in a weary voice. “You take good care.”
My mother, on the other hand, grown so old in recent years, seemed to grow younger. She was more like the caretaker of my youth, not the fragile, reedy person I had watched her become in my late twenties. I saw a new shine in her eyes, a new sheen to her skin. She walked with a light gait, her tinted head held high, dancing into baby stores to pick up powder and pins and tiny shirts—all the things The Swimmer would need.
My hair was now streaked with white. My mother dyed hers blond. We talked often about the baby.
“She’ll be a fine, strong girl,” my mother was certain.
“It’s a boy, Ma,” I kept reminding her. “Maybe I’ll name him John, after Grandfather Fuller.”
“We’ll call her Marina,” she said. “After the sea.”
One warm May evening, toward the end of my pregnancy, I ran into Joseph on the street after work. Though he traveled a lot, he was based in an office not far from the art store, and I was surprised that it hadn’t happened before.
“Hello, Joseph,” I said first.
“Hi.” He stared at me, at the bloated body I had grown used to over time, but that must have looked so different and strange to him.
“You look very . . . .”, he began foolishly.
“Pregnant,” I said and laughed.
“Yeah,” he said, running a hand through his hair, his dark eyes soft the way they could be.
“You look thin, Joseph.”
He laughed back. “You always say that. I’m just the same as I always was.”
“I’m just jealous. I feel like a whale.”
“No. You look good, Rose, real good.” He raised his hands in a helpless gesture. “It’s gone so far now, hasn’t it? Everything’s changed.”
“You don’t like changes, do you, Joseph?”
“No, I don’t. I’m not good at changes.”
“Neither am I. I think you just have to let them grow on you.”
“Maybe so,” he said, turning away. “I gotta go now.” I had never seen him cry before.
I had another restless night. Fully awake at dawn, with only a few hours of dozing behind me, I woke and dressed and walked down to the Y for the early-bird swim. Bathed in the cool morning air, I felt unaccountably odd and chalked it up to the aftermath of my meeting with Joseph and a bad dream about the baby.
But even the most simple tasks wearied me—digging for my wallet at the pool desk, opening the door to the locker room, bending down to unzip my bag. As I struggled to stretch the ridiculous bits of a bikini over my swollen body, stuffing my breasts into small triangles of batiked cloth, I was overcome by dizziness and sat down on a bench. Sara came dripping out of the shower, cracking her knuckles and shaking her muscular legs, sleek and shiny and brown.
“Must be almost time, huh?” she said.
“Yeah, any day now.” I held my pale fleshy arm up next to hers. “How do you manage to look like mocha in May, Sara, when the rest of us are still the color of skim milk?”
“I got my ways,” she grinned, and patted my hard stomach. “You don’t look so good, Rose. You feeling OK?”
“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “I’m fine.”
We walked slowly out to the pool. Sara dove gracefully into the fast lane, and I lumbered slowly down the metal ladder, sliding gently into the shallow end of the pool. The water swallowed me up to my lost rib cage, snug and cool against my hot body. As I bent down to duck my head under, a sudden rush of liquid poured from between my legs. I looked down to see if it was blood, but the water around me was unclouded.
Easing gently onto my back, I started down the lane. I saw Sara watching me as she rested from a fast ten laps in the next lane. The woman in front of me had an awkward, bent kick, and splashed water into my eyes and up my nose. As I reached out to touch the end of the pool and turn around, I felt a pain. It wasn’t strong, no worse than a bad cramp, but I knew I was in labor.
I glanced at the clock, the second hand running, and waded over to the ladder, stopping to grab Sara’s leg as she flew past me. She surfaced with an angry look that vanished when she saw me. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“It’s time,” I told her. “The Swimmer’s ready to swim.”
Sara jumped high out of the water and cheered. As I walked to the locker room, all the women in the pool clapped. I sent Sara out to the lobby to call my mother and gathered my clothes. While I dressed, I talked to The Swimmer.
Sara led me out onto the street, still in her suit and cap, a towel wrapped around her waist. “Let me know when he’s born,” she said, stuffing a crumpled slip of paper with her phone number on it into my hand.
“I will,” I told her, noticing her last name—Shaw—which I had never known. It reminded me that Sara, too, was somebody’s child, not just a bright neon fish in a city pool. I thought how nice it was that every baby had a bench of fans before it was even born.
After 15 hours of labor, I was exhausted and near ready to quit. I was only five centimeters dilated, and the contractions had been coming regularly for hours at five-minute intervals.
My mother went to get a cup of coffee, and my doctor sashayed by my room and swung his head inside the door.
“Still five minutes apart,” I told him, and suddenly started to cry. He came over to my bed and took my hand.
“What’s wrong, Rose?”
“Nothing. I’m just new at this, that’s all.”
“If it makes you feel any better, so am I.”
“That doesn’t make me feel better at all.”
“We could give you pills to speed up the labor, Rose. You’re exhausted.”
“No. No drugs. The baby will come when he’s ready. Just give him time.”
“Don’t be a hero, Rose. You got your whole life to be a hero.”
“I’m not trying to be anything. I’m just tired, that’s all. And it hurts like hell.”
“OK, it’s up to you,” he said, and squeezed my toes. “I’ll be back soon. If you change your mind. . . .”
“Dr. Jessup, how old are you?”
“Old enough to know better.”
“Than to argue with you. I saw stubborn written all over your face the day you walked into my office and told me how and when and why you were going to have your baby.”
“I am stubborn, I guess. It’s an old family trait. Come on, how old? You seem too young to do what you do.”
“I’m 37. Over the hill, don’t you think?”
“Well,” I said, managing a smile. “Let’s put it this way. You’re no spring chicken.”
“Look who’s talking,” he said, on his way out the door.
I felt her by my side—my mother’s hot breath on my cheek, as she bent to kiss my sweaty face.
“How you doing old girl?” she said, using my father’s nickname for me.
“I’m OK, Ma.” I felt the first tightness of the next contraction, and we worked through it with the breathing exercises we had learned together in class.
“Three minutes since the last one, Rose,” my mother said, looking at her watch. “They’re getting closer.”
The pain subsided. “I’m scared, Ma. Suddenly, I’m terrified of this person inside me. What if I’m not a good mother? What if we don’t get along?”
“That’s the beauty of motherhood—it’s made to work. Nature arranges for that—something like built-in love.”
“We have that, don’t we, Ma?”
“Yes, we have that, Rose.”
“Will the baby be healthy? Will he hate me for not giving him a father?”
“Everything’s going to be fine.” My mother took my hand and coached me through another contraction with the quick panting breaths that I had practiced in the pool.
I released my grip on her hand. “Oh, Ma. That one was bad.”
“You’re doing fine, Rose,” she kept saying. “You’re doing just fine.”
In between contractions, we rested and did not speak.
“Why didn’t you ever have any more kids, Ma?” I asked, as another spasm of pain clutched me at my lower back and wound its way around to the front. I tried to listen to my mother’s answer, to focus on my breathing and on her clear voice.
“I don’t really know,” she said. “We were happy with the way things were—just the three of us. We saw no reason to change.”
“When I was little, I used to think I was adopted sometimes, Ma, that I was nobody’s little girl. I never want The Swimmer to feel that way.” The next contraction came so close that I had no time to rest.
“All kids think they’re adopted sometime,” my mother said, looking at her watch. “They get over it. One and a half minutes now, Rose.” She wiped my face with a towel, and sent the nurse for Dr. Jessup.
“I’m supposed to be angry now, Ma. That’s what they told us in class, remember? “Your pain and exhaustion may turn to irrational rage.” Page five. There was that drawing of that woman in the Lamaze manual, made to look all yellow and mad. Remember?”
Dr. Jessup appeared at my feet. After a quick examination, he said cheerfully, “Well, this is it, Rose.10 cm dilated and the baby’s head is at Station 1. Are you ready to push?”
“I’m ready,” I told him and turned to my mother. “I’m not angry at all, you know, Ma? Not at William or Joseph or the baby, least of all not at you.”
My mother just smiled, her makeup smudged, her blond curls matted and askew.
I was bathed in sweat and sore all over. The contractions came less frequently, and when they did I pushed, keeping my eyes open and my chin to my chest. Just as I wondered where I would find the strength to fight the last pain and deliver my child, I felt The Swimmer’s huge bulk start to travel through my center, splitting me at the seams.
“The baby’s coming,” Dr. Jessup said, “I see the crown of its head. Push now, Rose. Push.”
I gave in to the great pressure, and to one last fierce blast of pain, and the baby’s head emerged.
“Sit up, Rose!” Dr. Jessup said.
“What do you mean?”
“Sit up, now. You can watch the baby coming. You can help.”
I struggled to raise the upper half of my body. My mother held a mirror at my feet. I saw the dark hair of my baby’s head.
“Now, reach forward,” he said. “Reach forward and grab the baby’s arms. Can you see them?”
I did see them, flailing wildly in the mirror, and I took my daughter’s slippery arms into my palms and gently pulled her into the world.
Sara and my father were our first visitors. Sara wanted to hold the baby right away. She gave my father courage, and he took a turn, looking more fragile than my new daughter.
“What are you gonna call her?” Sara asked. “Mark’s out now. How about Tracy, after Tracy Caulkins, the great Olympic swimmer?”
“Emily’s a nice name,” my father said. “It’s a family name.”
“She’s always been Marina to me,” my mother said.
“Her name is Irene,” I told them.
“Irene!” Sara said with distain. “After who?”
“After nobody,” I told her. “Just Irene for Irene.”